Memories - Alexander Fischer

Russian violinist, assistent of Mikhail Vaiman in the Leningrad conservatory in 1960-s, later a professor himself, the dean in Leningrad conservatory and a professor in Tallinn.

Alexander Alexandrovich, you are a violinist and were a first-hand witness to the events. I think you are the best placed person to answer the question of how much influence Vaiman had on Hirshhorn as a violinist.

The fact is that when two boys from Riga came to Vaiman for tuition, a problem arose:  Vaiman was not teaching in the Special Music School. For that reason, I was chosen there. Twice a week they took lessons with me and once a week with Vaiman. Until then, in Riga people studied with Sturestep. He was a teacher, a very good person. He told me how he dealt with them. He summoned the mother of one student and said: “Philippe already is playing, for example, the Paganini concerto.” Then he called the mother of another one and told her that Gidon is already playing  The Last Rose of Summer… As for Gidon, he then went down to Moscow to study with Oistrakh, and before his departure he wrote a warm farewell letter, which I never expected. He was a very closed person by nature. He could not reach a common understanding with Vaiman. Vaiman told him: if you don’t practice as I suggest, the violin will never sound right in your hands. And it turned out that he was right, as we know…  But Philippe, on the contrary, was a warm personality and everyone loved him. We later became friends and he even had entrée to our family.  As a student he was incredibly capable of hard work. He could stand up and work at vibrato for five hours a day – and in the end he succeeded with that vibrato.

What were his problems with vibrato?

Till then his vibrato was compressed and uniform. That concerns his left hand. But if we talk about his right hand, then the issue was the quality of sound and détaché above all. In our Leningrad school, there are two points of support for the violin: the collarbone and the thumb. Back then it was still possible to talk about schools, whether the Moscow or Leningrad schools, whereas today they are leveled out. To speak in more detail is useless; you have to have an instrument in your hands and demonstrate it.

As we recall, in 1962, during the Tchaikovsky competition, Tsimbalist said to Boris Gutnikov (a student of Eidlin): “Young man, finally I am hearing the genuine Petersburg sound.”

Yes! That’s true.

What do you think? Could you also say that to Hirshhorn?

Of course.

But when on the recording taken at the competition he is playing the final measures of the Paganini concerto, détaché, with an absolutely rigid, unbending hand – is that also the Leningrad school?

(laughing) No, that is the “school of Philippe Hirshhorn”… that’s what we were up against. And later, the competition – that’s a special case where you have to overcome nerves just to play to the end. Furthermore, I personally witnessed how Rostropovich played the finale of the Symphony-Concerto squeezing the bow in his fist – and it all turned out splendidly for him.

In what classroom was Vaiman working? In Leopold Auer’s, twenty-five?

Not straightaway, but then he began teaching in classroom twenty-five and worked there for many years.  But I have to say that classroom twenty-five cannot be described as belonging wholly to Auer. Auer taught there for something like a year or two. When the First World War broke out, Auer was afraid of shelling and moved down one floor from classroom forty-three. When Zimbalist arrived in Leningrad and walked around the Conservatory, he said about classroom twenty-five: “we did not study here.”

What in general was the status of the Leningrad school and its prestige in violinist circles of those days?

It varied over time. While Yuli Ilich Eidlin was alive, people in Moscow were afraid of him: he was a living student of Auer. And when Oistrakh came to Leningrad, the first thing he did was to ring him up. When Eidlin died, and this happened in 1958, then things immediately became tougher for Leningraders. For some reason, that’s what happened. Graduates of the Moscow Conservatory fanned out across the country, while Leningraders for the most part remained in Leningrad. Therefore, it seemed that the juries of competitions were filled only with Muscovites or their satellites.  Former Muscovites even came from Yerevan, and everything was organized very well. I was cut out three times. Gantvarg was also dropped. There was a certain antagonism between Leningrad and Moscow. Not at the student level, but at the level of the instructors. Therefore, many capable fellows who in Moscow would have been competition winners five times over remained without prizes and renown.

Did this affect Hirshhorn? Did he encounter prejudice when they selected the candidates to send to Genoa or to Brussels?

Look, not to let him compete… how could that be?

Did Vaiman give Philippe his violin for the Queen Elisabeth Competition?  Was that really the case?

Yes, that’s how it really was. A Balestrieri.  In fact, Vaiman had three [Italian] violins: a Strad, this Balestrieri and a Joseph Guarneri.

These were his own personal violins?

Yes, back then it was still possible to buy something. They were expensive, of course, but by comparison with today’s prices they cost nothing. It seems that Vaiman bought his Stradivarius for fifty thousand, though this may not be precise. Then literally a short time before he died, Philippe bought the Balestrieri from Vaiman’s widow. Vaiman’s daughter plays on the second violin, but I don’t know what happened to the Joseph Guarneri.  Here’s the story behind what happened at the Queen Elisabeth Competition:  the fact is that before the competition began Vaiman went away on a lengthy concert tour and for a month or two I was the one who worked with Hirshhorn. When he got the first prize, he either remembered about this in some interview or he told someone. I don’t remember any more. But somehow word of this reached Vaiman and he became cooler towards Philippe and looked crossly at me.  In a word, it happened quite differently than with Nelli Shkolnikovaya when she won in Paris.  “Whom are you rehearsing with?” they asked her in an interview. “With docent Yankelevich.” And the next day Yankelevich woke up to find he had become a docent.  Then Felik decided to go back to Riga and finish up with Sturestep.  In Riga, some hard to understand things already began. For example, for some reason he decided to go to the Lenin Competition.

Which competition?

Yes, just imagine, there was such a Lenin Competition in the 1970s. I, for one, told him: “What are you doing? You, with your surname in such a competition!  Can you really count on something?” But he nonetheless went there and they gave the first prize to Korsakov. As you see, his surname is more pleasant to the ears. Then there was also an Enescu Competition in Bucharest. That was a serious competition with a difficult program, and Hirshhorn played there and was awarded third prize. The first prize went to Agaronian.  Why this was done, I don’t know. After all, following the Queen Elisabeth he didn’t have to go anywhere. It was the most authoritative competition. Remember that our Tchaikovsky then was given low marks. I think that it was done under the influence of his mother. And, of course, all these events pushed him towards emigrating. I believe that it was a mistake he left Leningrad. He shouldn’t have done that. He had everything there. They carried him aloft. Graduate studies were in the bag, and then a teaching position would follow. Besides, Vaiman was very suitable as a pedagogue for him.

Precisely in what way?

Hirshhorn was exceptionally gifted and intuitive. Vaiman was also intuitive. Moreover, this was brilliantly demonstrated in Vaiman’s teaching. He taught remarkably well, and not just talented people. It often happened that some weak violinist in the fifth class grew into an artist. Just how Vaiman did that I cannot understand and it is impossible to repeat it. He had his discoveries. For example, from time to time he had the habit of playing simultaneously, in unison, with the student.  We played together with him, followed him and had the impression that some part of his brilliance was transferred to us as well, that we already were playing almost like him.

Then when Felik tried to take lessons from Yankelevich after he left Riga, Yankelevich did not at all suit him, as I believe.  But this is also not for publication… In Riga, he became a soloist with the philharmonic, began to travel around the Soviet Union, and these tours also did not take place without stupidities. I think they were, you know, “spoiling him” a bit.  For example, in Sochi there was one incident when he asked for a car to go from the hotel to the concert hall although it was just a three minute walk.  Of course, they did not send a car for him and then he simply did not appear at the concert. There was an enormous scandal. That, of course, influenced relations towards him, while all of these cases of competitions influenced his mood.  When he got the invitation to come to Israel, he and his whole family left. In Israel there was Stern.  He was a Zionist, as you know.  Stern suggested that he sign a statement about the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union and he refused, didn’t sign. That was, of course, good and noble, but at a stroke he lost America and Japan.  By contrast, Mischa Maisky signed and got the whole world. That’s the kind of man he was…

You know, he got a lot of benefit from his friendship with Lieberman.  Lieberman had a sober and business-like mind, and he helped Philippe a lot. He, so to speak, ‘cooled him down.’  This was later, when they worked in Utrecht. The two of them succeeded in turning this rather bad and provincial conservatory into a quite worthy educational institution.
I have all of his recordings. Everything that is available.  Paganini, Sibelius and Brahms, as well as when he was playing Bartok at a competition – it’s very good. If you compare him with today’s performers… Now, you know, there are many people who play well. For example, Alyona Bayeva – would you say she plays badly? Or my namesake, Yuliya Fisher… And from among the very new ones – Roman Kim, for example.  But they are not Hirshhorn. Violists like him don’t exist any more. Not even in external appearance, by the way. Look at Philippe – there’s an artist!  And look at some other one – who’d not be out of place selling meat in a food stall…

There are a great many rumors about Hirshhorn circulating in the internet. For example, people say that he once played a trick on Vaiman, smashing some violin on the edge of a piece of furniture in front of him, a violin which from a distance he thought to be his Balestrieri.

No, nothing of the sort happened. Philippe, of course, loved to joke, but he never went so far as to smash a violin, even a mass production violin… You shouldn’t believe everything that people write on the internet.